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Beyond Ground Zero Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002
by Eric A. Powell

Taking stock of lower Manhattan's endangered heritage

[image] Federal Hall, built in the Greek revival style, was completed in 1842 and served as the Customs House and the U.S. Subtreasury. The marble and granite building, constructed to withstand fire, is vulnerable to vibration. The collapse of the towers exacerbated cracks in the foundation and west wall. (Eric A. Powell) [LARGER IMAGE]

On the morning of September 11, John Stubbs, vice-president of the World Monuments Fund, was at a podium in the basement of Columbia University's Avery Hall, leading his Tuesday seminar "Theory and Practice of Historic Conservation." On the syllabus that day: threats to cultural heritage. Toward the end of the hour, an assistant dean knocked on the door, interrupting the class to inform them that something unimaginable, "a calamity of the first order," was unfolding in Lower Manhattan. With mass transit paralyzed, Stubbs managed to get a taxi from Upper Manhattan to 42nd Street and walked the rest of the way home to Brooklyn, always within sight of the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, he saw the 47-story Seven WTC building collapse, sending up a mushroom cloud of smoke and dust.

[image] This wrought-iron fence was built around Bowling Green Park in 1771. A Red Cross relief station set up for workers at Ground Zero is visible in the background. (Eric A. Powell) [LARGER IMAGE]

The nonprofit, New York-based World Monuments Fund (WMF), founded in 1965 by preservationists to assist Venice in the wake of a calamitous flood, has long experience in assisting countries in protecting cultural heritage put at risk by disasters. With a catastrophe in their own city and mindful of the terrible human cost of the tragedy, the WMF staff convened two days after the attacks to discuss the implications for Lower Manhattan's built environment.

With 65 registered landmarks and six historic districts, the one-and-a-half-square-mile area at the southern end of Manhattan is densely packed with historic buildings, churches, and archaeological sites dating back to the city's seventeenth-century Dutch era. The rich heritage of the downtown area includes both early nineteenth-century tenements and twentieth-century skyscrapers like the 1913 neo-Gothic Woolworth Building. Not far from Ground Zero are the African Burial Ground ("Bones and Bureaucrats," March/April 1993 and "Inside City Hall," February 25, 2000) and the former site of the nineteenth-century Five Points "slum" ("New York's Mythic Slum," March/April 1997), two of the premiere urban archaeological sites in America (the Five Points collection of ceramics, animal bones, and glassware, stored at the U.S. Customs House in Six WTC, was destroyed in the attacks).

To publicize monuments in peril, the WMF issues a list of the 100 most endangered sites in the world every two years. With the 2002 list due to be issued in less than a month, the Fund decided in their September 13 meeting to add historic Lower Manhattan as its 101st site ("2002 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites Announced," October 11, 2001).

Eric A. Powell is assisstant editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America